Much of the talk regarding this week's NFC matchup has revolved around scheduling and flight times, instead of game plans and personnel. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers arrived in London on Monday so as to fully acclimate to the five-hour time change. The Chicago Bears arrived yesterday, choosing to allow the players extra time in their own beds and homes.
If the Bears fade late in the game, expect a media firestorm to ensue regarding the team's decision to fly out just two days before kickoff. In reality, professional NFL players, those in peak physical condition who are chock full of adrenaline the entire 60 minutes of each contest, don't typically wear down. It's safe to say countless players have had trouble sleeping the night before a game, causing them to play tired, yet never has anyone blamed their restlessness for a team's loss. But if the Bears lose, expect that to be the case.
Such is the Chicago media.
Let's take a look at what really matters: How the Bears need to attack Tampa Bay both on offense and defense to win the game.
The Bears have ruled out T Gabe Carimi (knee) and DT Matt Toeaina (knee). WR Earl Bennett (chest) practiced fully all week but it's expected the team will take a cautious approach and keep him inactive. Chicago has a bye next week, so that would give him another 14 days for his chest to fully heal. S Major Wright (hip) has been limited all week and may not suit up. That would thrust Chris Harris back into the starting role just six days after requesting a trade. TE Kellen Davis (elbow) practiced fully and is listed as probable. Yet after the Bears declared DE Julius Peppers doubtful last week, then started him two days later, it's hard to give any real value to some of these designations. Peppers is not on the injury report this week.
RB LaGarrette Blount
The Buccaneers will be without RB LaGarrette Blount (knee) and C Jeff Faine (biceps), both starters. RB Earnest Graham will start for Blount, while Jeremy Zuttah will slide in from guard to start at center. Ted Larsen will start at left guard. DT Gerald McCoy (ankle) and TE Luke Stocker (knee) are questionable, while DE Michael Bennett (groin) and LB Mason Foster (ankle) are probable – all four are expected to play.
-The Bears and Bucs are similar in a number of ways. Both have inconsistent offenses that struggle to move the ball at times; both offenses are at their best when the ground game is working; both are strong on special teams; and both have talented defenses that have underperformed this year. Additionally, each team has, at times this season, looked like the worst team in the league one week and a top-tier group the next.
Sunday should be a defensive battle that will swing way or another based on field position. To that end, Devin Hester needs to continue on his current tear. That won't be easy though. Tampa Bay is first in the league in average kickoff return yards allowed (18.4 per return) and eighth in the league in average punt return yards allowed (6.3). The Bucs special teams do a good job of staying in their lanes and wrapping up. They have not allowed a punt or kickoff return touchdown all season, so if Hester can bust through and take one to the house for the third week in a row, it could be demoralizing to the players in red and silver.
-Tampa Bay ranks 27th overall in passing defense, allowing 276 yards per game through the air. They employ the same Cover 2 defense as the Bears, who are also giving up 276 yards per game. Playing against it in practice every day, Jay Cutler and his receivers should have a pretty good idea how to attack the Cover 2. The Bucs will attempt to take away the deep pass and force the ball to underneath routes, just like Chicago's defense does each week. Cutler will need to be patient and not force the ball down field. If nothing is there but the check down, take it and move the ball five yards. Considering RB Matt Forte is capable of turning any dump pass into a touchdown, it's a pretty sound strategy.
-If the passing game is going to attack anyone, it should be 15-year veteran cornerback Ronde Barber. He's savvy and understands the defense but he no longer has the skills to compete at a high level in one-on-one coverage. If the Bears' offense can get single coverage with Barber on Johnny Knox or Devin Hester, they need to take advantage of that mismatch. Barber won't be able to keep up with either receiver.
CB Ronde Barber
-Stay away from CB Aqib Talib. He's the most talented member of this secondary and a playmaker. He takes risks, so double moves can hurt him, but he can also shift a game's momentum with a pick-six anytime the ball is thrown his way. It's safer to pick on Barber than it is Talib.
-As opposing offenses have shown us, confusing safeties in the Cover 2 can lead to big plays. The Buccaneers' safeties, Corey Lynch and Sean Jones, have been very inconsistent this year and have given up a number of big gainers. Challenging these two could help pick up big chunks of yardage through the air.
-The Bears' defense is at its worst when opposing offenses are able to rush the ball. The same goes for Tampa Bay. With Carimi out, the right side will again consist of Lance Louis at right tackle and Chris Spencer at right guard. Both performed well last week against a Minnesota Vikings defensive line that has more talent than the Bucs'. DT Gerald McCoy is the biggest weapon on the front line, so it will be up to Spencer and LG Chris Williams to keep him under wraps inside. Spencer and Garza will need to continue their solid work at the second level and limit the effectiveness of Tampa Bay's young but talented linebacker corps.
-The Bucs boast a pair of powerful pass rushers on the edge. Michael Bennett and rookie Adrian Clayborn have been disruptive from their respective end positions. J'Marcus Webb and Louis, who allowed just one sack between them against Minnesota, must perform well for the second week in a row. Tampa has forced 11 turnovers so far this year, sixth best in the league. The defense is opportunistic, and if Cutler is pressured in the pocket, it could lead to some bad reads and wobbly throws off his back foot. Webb and Louis must allow him time to scan the defense and step into his throws.
-As Forte goes, so does this offense, so it's imperative he gets 20-30 touches … but you knew that already.
-Chicago's defense caught a break with the injury to LaGarrette Blount, who is a punishing running back that can wear a defense down. Instead they will face Earnest Graham, the team's third-down back. He gained 109 yards on 17 carries last week against the Saints, so he can definitely be productive if given the opportunity. The Bears held Minnesota's Adrian Peterson to 39 yards on 12 rushes last week and should be able to do the same to Graham. The Bucs passing attack is far from potent, although nowhere near as anemic as the Vikings'. Still, Chicago's defense should key on the run early, sending an extra player or two in the box in obvious run situations.
-In order to stop the run, the Bears must be disciplined. Last week, the linebackers and safeties did a good job of mirroring the ball carrier and filling the correct gaps, something they have struggled with for most of the season. That patience and awareness must again be prevalent Sunday.
DT Stephen Paea
-Defensive tackles Henry Melton, Anthony Adams and Amobi Okoye have been quiet for weeks and just aren't impacting games. Yet Stephen Paea, who saw his first action last week due to Toeaina's injury, was extremely impressive. His upper body strength combined with his quickness made him a force inside. Minnesota has a strong offensive line yet they could do nothing to stop Paea. He should be on the field as much as possible in London, especially on first and second down.
-D.J. Moore will have his hands full this week as the nickelback, as he'll be charged with covering WR Preston Parker for most of the contest. Parker is a quick, speedy receiver that is dangerous out of the slot. I expect the Bears defense to play a lot of zone shell this game, limiting the deep pass, but when man coverage is called, Moore needs to be on his toes. Parker has the potential to turn any catch into a TD.
-The linebackers, specifically Brian Urlacher, must be cognizant of TE Kellen Winslow each and every play. Winslow has the most catches on the team and the second most targets. If he's eating up chunks of yardage in the middle, that could force the safeties to start cheating up, which may lead to big plays down field with Mike Williams or Arrelious Benn.
-QB Josh Freeman has struggled in his third season, specifically with accuracy. He's thrown more interceptions than touchdowns through the first six weeks. He has made poor decisions when pressured, which means defensive ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije could be game changers if they can bring it off the edge. Offensive tackles Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood are good but not great. Peppers is much more healthy than he was last week, when he dominated the Minnesota front five. A repeat performance should lead to a Bears win.
PREDICTION: Bears 19, Bucs 16
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.